Thursday, November 25, 2010

Richard A. Lanham

From a Q & A with Richard A. Lanham, author of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information:

Question: The information economy is saturated with it: there's something like 80 million websites, 500 TV channels, countless online newspapers constantly updated, a gazillion blogs, podcasts, mp3s, video downloads, etc., etc. And worldwide there are about 1 million new books published each year. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. What are the scarce resources in the information economy?

Richard A. Lanham: The scare resource is the human attention needed to make sense of the enormous flow of information, to learn, as it were, how to drink out of the firehose.

Question: So, is the goal in the attention economy is to get eyeballs first, and the money will follow? Is that how to make sense of the enormous flow of free information that is at our fingertips? If so, who can help maximize the number of those eyeballs? Software engineers? Designers? Celebrities? Artists?

Lanham: You are asking three questions at once. First, yes, in an attention economy, you have to get the eyeballs first. But the money, as many found out with internet stocks, does not automatically follow the eyeballs.

Second, how to "make sense of the enormous flow of free information" is another question altogether, at least if I understand you. If you mean, "how do we explain the explosion of free information provided by the internet?," then there are a lot of answers to that, some beyond the traditional purview of economics. People put up information on the web often for the pure pleasure of sharing what they know-the pleasure of teaching. They don't expect money to follow. They are being paid in a different coin, the pleasure of teaching, which includes of course the attention your readers/viewers/students pay to you. One of the great surprises, at least to me, about the internet-based information explosion is the extraordinary human generosity which it has revealed. People want to share their information, their enthusiasms, their way of looking at the world and now they have a new and infinitely more effective way to do it. It may be what they know about Barbie dolls, or about digital cameras, or the specifications of sewer pipe for your house-the range is infinite. It is far more surprising, at least to me, how often people want to give this information away than how they want to be paid for it. So, how to explain the "enormous flow of free information"? Emphatically, not just in the expectation of future profit. Quite the opposite. This generosity of spirit has not been so remarked as it ought to have been.

Third, "who can help maximize the number of those eyeballs?" Ah, well,...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue